In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Lover Come Back to Me

Every reunion is a type of heaven

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell." Edna St Vincent Millay
"This aching heart of mine is singing, Lover come back to me." Billy Holiday
"Jesse come home, there's a hole in the bed where you slept." Joan Baez
"I never get jealous when I see my ex with someone else, because my mom always taught me to give my used toys to the less fortunate." Unknown

Why is the phenomenon of yearning for ex-lovers so frequent and powerful? Is such yearning due to desperation or passion? Is it related to the quality of our ex or to a deficiency in our current romantic life? It would seem that various factors are involved.

Genuine love is profound — it does not come and go every now and then; it is something that is likely to last over time. This does not mean that love cannot fade away, but even when it does, it leaves some scars, or rather potential feelings that can flourish if and when the environment is conducive. Indeed, the central features of romantic love, such as profound care, genuine reciprocity and intense desire, cannot be easily erased. They are more likely to fade, to be put aside, or to be buried under the existing circumstances; but they can make an impressive comeback in appropriate circumstances.

Those circumstances are also associated with our present situation. When we are sad, lonely or just feeling we have lost ourselves, it is natural to look for an alternative situation. And one of the first places to do so is our past, and especially in our relationships with those people with whom we were in love. Our memories are one form of our imagination, which is part and parcel of our mental environment. By means of our imagination we can rapidly move from one place to another and from one time to another-dwelling more upon positive experiences we want to re-experience, or negative experiences we cannot escape.

Yearning for an ex-lover is a type of nostalgia for circumstances that no longer exist. It is usually marked by idealization of the past and an element of virtual reliving of the past". Nostalgia is a bittersweet longing, combining the pleasurable feeling of the past with the pain of the empty or dull present. The content of nostalgia is pleasurable, but the sense of absence it provokes is painful (see here).

When we find ourselves in circumstances similar to those that prevailed with an ex-lover, we slip more readily into a nostalgic, romantic mood. Our memory is activated by any reoccurrence of circumstances that prevailed in the original experience. Listening to old love songs and watching romantic movies can provoke a strong yearning for the past lovers with whom we shared these songs or movies (or the content of them).

The wish to be back with the lover is not activated merely because our current situation is desperate, but also by the memory of a passionate love. Sometimes loneliness makes the loudest noise; at other times, profound love provides louder and deeper music. It is quite natural to yearn for a past lover, particularly if the original relationship was reciprocal and fulfilling.

Romantic reunion has its own unique charm. As Tryon Edwards said, "Every parting is a form of death, as every reunion is a type of heaven." If, however, the parting is associated with traumatic negative experiences, the prospects of positive reunion might be reduced.

If we idealize our past romance even as we remember the negative parting, the conflict between these two ways of remembering the past can confuse us about the prospects of a romantic reunion. As someone said, "Some exes don't get the picture that they will never be back in the picture."
The charms of the past are also associated with past difficulties-after all, in most cases of broken relationships, the romance did not work out and parting was seen as the optimal solution. Given that most people are unlikely to have changed considerably, romantic reunions might be unable to surmount the difficulties that the relationship encountered in the past. It can be like seeing the same movie again and again while knowing that a sad ending is inevitable. Another difficulty of romantic reunions is that breakups are often not mutual; rather, one person dumps the other. In this case, the memory of the rejection and the inequality in status between the two lovers can be an obstacle to a romantic reunion.

There are some noticeable exceptions to the above gloomy prognosis for reunions. If the parting was due not to lack of love but to unfavorable external circumstances, such as when the two lovers were married to other people, or there were difficulties at work or in raising the children, should new circumstances arise that do not include the previous difficulties, the earlier love can be rekindled and a successful reunion might take place.

When a romantic relationship ends not because of romantic reasons, but due to nonromantic external circumstances, it leaves the relationship unresolved, in a state of unfinished business. And like other such unfinished affairs, this heightens the level of emotional intensity, since there are various options that might have evolved (see here). As Sarah Jessica Parker's character asks: "When a relationship dies, do we ever really give up the ghost, or are we forever haunted by the spirits of past relationships?" The lure of a possible romantic reunion is great, but so is the specter of another painful breakup. The following slogan on a T-Shirt sums this up: "I Feel Much Better Since I Gave Up Hope." Our dreams about ex-lovers are not characterized by a sense of tranquility or peace of mind.

To sum up, yearning for past lovers is natural, and it may even lead to a successful reunion if the lovers parted because of nonromantic circumstances that have now changed. When the parting was due to lack of love, the prospects of such reunion are slim.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, my unforgettable precious princess, please come back to me as I am sure our previous distance can be bridged; otherwise our great love could be forgotten and our eager hearts might become accustomed to disuse."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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